Brandon 'Yano' Payano is all things music. He believes that being self-taught and continuing to learn and strive towards your goals is the best way–his resume is proof. With a deep passion for music, Payano entered the industry writing concert reviews at Syracuse University. Born and raised in The Bronx he was able to apply himself to the live music scene while building his journalistic portfolio and working for SONOS. Since then, he's become a contributor to BRICK the mag profiling upcoming artists like Berhana, Hawa, and Haleek Maul. And, after a cold email (or two), to COLORSXSTUDIOS he's now the US Curator and A&R at the leading musical platform. Outside of COLORS, Payano manages and develops artist Q and producer Hush Forte.
This interview took place between Ella in Brooklyn and Brandon Payano in The Bronx.
EJ: How did you get to where you are today?
BP: I've always been interested in being a part of something creative. I struggled a lot trying to pinpoint what it was that I wanted to do because I've always wanted to do so much. From a principle standpoint, I just applied myself. Being in music and being in the creative industry was one of those things in my life that I felt like I had full control over –especially the outcome. I've always been dedicated to learning everything that I needed to learn about it. YouTube University!
I would study online, watch interviews, read articles, buy books. I applied for different gigs in the music industry and tried to meet or network with other folks. Those meetings were proving to not really result in anything, so I just continued to take it upon myself to be self-taught in the process. I've made some really good friends along the way who have helped me kind of get into some of the positions that I'm in now, but a large portion of that was just me going for it.
You studied education and sociology at university. What role do you think your formal education played in your career today?
I think both education and sociology play a big role in what I'm doing now. As it pertains to management and working with artists, there's a lot of education; retelling of processes and articulating the bigger picture where the artist comes away with an actual lesson–and not just feeling like they're being told to do something, but explaining why we should do it, and why it would benefit their career to act on it.
Studying sociology was very beneficial because, in the creative field, we are in service of people by way of studying what they like, and their habits; why they like the songs that they like, why they enjoy certain videos, visuals, etc. You're also managing personalities in a way, and learning how different people work and collaborate with each other. I love to know why people do the things they do, what motivates them, what doesn't motivate them, what motivates me, what doesn't motivate me. I like to coach people in that process. I'm always trying to lead people to their own revelations about how they operate, and then how they can manifest that into action towards their goals.
Can we go over the positions you've held?
I got my start in music journalism. I was writing concert reviews while attending Syracuse University and from there, I pivoted into writing about new and upcoming artists post-college. My goal has always been A&R [Artist and Repertoire,] to discover talent, put people onto that talent, and then, at some point, be involved in the development process around that talent. I was in music journalism for about 6+ years, until I transitioned into curation. I knew that writing would get me in the door, by way of a suggestion from a close friend at the time, and I was desperate to get into the industry in any way I could.
I then began working for SONOS, the HI-FI speaker company, for about 2.5 years. I was a part of the company’s first retail team that opened up the first-ever experience store for the brand. It was a space that allowed customers to test out SONOS speakers in these really dope listening booths by day. And by night I began helping out with a lot of the brand activations around artist listening parties (Kamasi Washington, A Tribe Called Quest, Vince Staples, etc.) and industry panels once I became an Assistant Manager.
Around that time I reached out to COLORS. I was like, "Hey, I curate dope playlists, I can write copy, but also long-form as well. I'd love to be a part of the team. And first and foremost, I would love to be a part of the scouting process and help contribute towards picking the talent that'll be on the show." I’ll be coming up on 4 years there, within the next couple of months.
From my work with COLORS, I started to realize the wealth of my own knowledge and used that to start working and consulting with talent to help them build and develop themselves to be full-fledged artists out here competing with everyone else.
When you started the music journalism path, did you ever have imposter syndrome? Did you take a journalism class or did you just start writing? Do you remember your first pitch?
I definitely felt imposter syndrome! But I'll say this, I didn't really learn how to pitch until I landed my first “real” writing gig at Atwood Magazine (and at that point, I had already been writing for two years.)
In the beginning, I wasn't taught how. I had to research what a good pitch was and what a bad pitch was. I researched the different styles of writing; because writing a profile is very different from writing an interview, which are both different from writing a feature piece or an album review.
I had to ask myself so many questions. What do I want to say? What is my tone? What is my voice? I think for anyone who's starting out, my biggest suggestion is to learn how to pitch properly. Learn how to outline what it is you want to talk about so that you can present that idea to your editor, or the editor whose publication you're looking to contribute towards. It'll make you feel more confident about the idea you have and how you plan to bring it to life. Also, be sure to tell editors why you think your story is valuable to their platform.
Another piece of advice: read other people's work. Read about artists, read about albums, and be specific about what details in other people's writing bring out a certain emotion for you. One of my favorite music writers is Yoh [Phillips] from DJBooth, because I love how insightful his writing always is, how he is able to break things down. In my writing, I'm not as insightful because I wasn’t investigative in my journalism, I was more so interested in storytelling. I was able to find the language that works for me in articulating how I felt about an artist, and meeting them, and listening to their music. Reading other people's work and seeing what works for them and how you resonate with that can actually be really telling for your own style.
And at the very least, stay on top of subjects that you want to write about. For me, I've always stayed on top of new music. In the beginning, I was able to use that to get in the door, whether or not I had a proper pitch or not because of my passion for new music.
To go off your research point, it makes such a difference to read other people's work because not only are you becoming aware of how other people write, but you're becoming aware of what's being written about. You don't want to be the person pitching talent to a magazine that had them on the cover a month prior.
Right, exactly. I bought this book called How to Write About Music: Excerpts from the 33 1/3 Series, Magazines, Books and Blogs with Advice from Industry-leading Writers edited by Mark Woodworth and Ally-Jane Grossan. When I first started to do really big interviews and profiles for a BRICK the Mag, I was nervous. This is a print magazine! I wanted to make sure I really, understood the differentiation between the styles. I got that book as a refresher and a way to help guide me through the perspective I should be writing from. One of the key takeaways from that book is don't talk about things that other people have talked about, or if you do, expand on them. Make it interesting.
I did a story on Berhana, for the latest BRICK, which I think is probably one of my best interviews to date. It was the most fun and I felt like it was the most investigative I had been about his creative process outside of music, his love for storytelling and films, and how he's been able to repurpose his music in a visual sense, to create a world around him and I really positioned the story around that.
You mentioned reaching out to COLORS. Did they have a listing or did you just cold-email them?
Cold-reached out. There was no job listing, no anything. Just email@example.com (back when it was called that and the team was only about 3-4 people.) I reached out twice, and the second time, I got a response and hit it off really well with the CEO [Philipp Starcke.] We had a lot of similarities taste/music-wise.
Since then we've just spent the last four years listening to music together and booking really great shows with the rest of the team, contributing to culture, and contributing to the DNA of what COLORS has become internationally and here in the US.
I think that will be really inspiring to people, especially now, who are scouring LinkedIn for job listings.
I tell people this all the time: always shoot your shot. That's how I got BRICK as well. It wasn't anything fancy, I reached out and was like, "Hey, I love this magazine. I have two copies. I'm a journalist as well as a curator at COLORS. Here are some clips. I just love what you all do and I want to be a part of this."
And, and that was kind of it. They had an assignment for me within the first week, it happened really fast.
To be honest, I was at a place in my career where everything I was doing at the time was digital, right? The COLORS videos are all on YouTube, the writing I was doing was all on the internet, I had nothing really tangible to speak towards my progress or speak towards the work I had been doing for years now. It was cool and it was real; people can now see my writing and actually pay for it and have it on their coffee table, and really sit with a story that I was able to tell.
For BRICK, you've spoken to Haleek Maul, Hawa, Phony PPL, Caleb Giles, and most recently Berhana. What do you treasure most about those conversations?
As a journalist, it feels really affirming to dive into what inspires an artist to make something. Without journalists, people wouldn't know. Who would be asking those questions? And I think more often than not, there is so much space for us to ask the same things across publications; the artist might feel reluctant because they've already answered something like that before. But I think depending on who the interviewer is, how they're delivering it, and also what the energy is, it really sets the tone for what the artist is going to give. Artists are just people like us, who want to share the same life stories as we do.
Today, you’re involved in several creative endeavors–what does your average day look like?
Yeah, there's a lot! My job with COLORS really just consists of listening to music, scouting artists for us to pitch and for us to discuss as the internal team, fielding calls, inquiries, and submissions from labels, artist management, PR companies, and artists themselves. I'm getting on the phone and discussing the process and what it is we're looking for on our platform. The main thing is just tapping into the scene here in the US, so I try my best to stay on top of any and everything new. I try to pay attention to a lot of artists who are really new to the scene. What do I like about them and how can I help (given the platform I’m a part of and what I’m also able to provide separately from that.)
Aside from COLORS, what is your day-to-day like with managing artists?
I also manage two acts, Q and HUSH FORTE. And I've begun some consulting and creative strategy for a handful of folks outside of both of those spheres. At the end of the day, I would love to at least be known as a great A&R and creative strategist; those are the two worlds I want to exist in for a really long time. I want to make records from start to finish and be a part of the creative process from start to finish, fully-packaging, and realizing an artist's idea with them.
One thing I can say about management is that I've learned so much about the industry in such a short span of time. The day really consists of checking in with my artists, where their heads are at, some of the things currently on our plate, and presenting any new opportunities that come to the table for us. It’s my job to steer the ship properly, as best I can.
With both of my artists, I really look at myself more as a partner. I'm facilitating their ideas and am given a lot of space to add my own. I then spend most of my days championing that vision in various conversations and phone calls to make sure that things feel and appear exactly how we want them to. It's really rewarding to be a part of that process from start to finish, but I do want to say for anybody that is interested in management, it does take up a lot of time and energy.
Time management and organization for yourself alone has to be really, really good. There are so many conversations happening with so many different people at the same time that you have to be able to multitask and give your attention, approval, distaste, or response all at the same time. It requires you to have a really good grasp on what your daily schedule so that you make sure that you're still championing your artists while you might be working on other projects. You have to really love music and want to be part of the early process with an artist, otherwise, it can be really taxing on your mental.
Your roles span across the industry as a whole–what skills have you prioritized and which do you find most valuable?
For A&R and curation: really having a good sense of what your taste is and being able to articulate it. I had a really good friend tell me that really good A&Rs, curators, or scouts are able to champion the artists and the music they like unabashedly. They are able to pinpoint the strong points of an artist, and why they want to work with them, and how they think they can actually help.
Know the ins and outs of those artists. Know what skills you actually possess: whether it's connecting the dots for them, whether you have a mind oriented around press and how to bring the narrative around an artist to life, whether you have a great mind for marketing and you're able to think about creative marketing ideas for how that artist should show up, visually and publicly. I think all of that stuff is very important.
Lastly, study music. There are people that are fans of music, but who don’t know music. That doesn’t mean you have to be a prodigy or anything, but listen to albums, listen to how they're sequenced, listen to how they're put together, listen to them as a package, listen to them as an experience, listen to songs and how they may sonically align with each other (whether it's how it’s written, arranged, or created.) Really dive into it and get lost. The more you become your own music encyclopedia, the better you are at the job in providing valuable insight and contributions for artists.
For management: really good organization, really good leadership, and great ideas for how your artist needs to show up. You need to have the foresight to articulate the bigger picture to your artist and then for you guys to be able to articulate that to everyone else outside of your internal team. What do you bring to the table that allows you to really get to know an artist? Do you have the people skills to understand what makes them tick? And are you then able to repurpose those motivations into actions to then inform what a potential vision for the artist can be?
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What has been your favorite COLORS show that you’ve worked on?
It was EARTHGANG’s session where they performed "Up" a couple of years back. I worked really closely with Kasturi Shan who works with them– I’m a big fan of hers. I just remember being really excited about getting this project across the board. I was working both COLORS and SONOS at the time, trying to balance both.
The song was not out yet and the album [Mirrorland] was nowhere near completed, so "Up" exclusively lived on COLORS at the time. To see people's reaction to it was so dope, and to know that I was a part of that was even wilder. They would perform it at shows and people would send me video clips of the audience moshing to it. Kaz would send me little clips of whenever they'd play it at a show. I think it has well-over 13M views at this point.
I was watching the first-ever Dreamville Fest that they did last year, and the boys performed the song, and when they introduced it, they were like, "Yo, a little while back, we went out to Germany in Berlin. And we did this dope show called at COLORS. And we're about to perform a song called "Up." The crowd bugged out. And to see them perform it, and how the crowd responded to it, I kid you not, it was such a heartwarming experience. I remember getting chills. It made me feel so validated in what I was doing. I'm forever thankful for that whole entire team: Kaz, Since the 80s, EARTHGANG.
On top of that, there was an artist named Ann-Kathrin, or AK, who showed me a still frame of the video that she had painted that blew me away. She ended up sending me a print of the painting that I know have in my house. That further cemented that moment for me.
You've always worked from the US remotely, so has your work life changed at all, given the times?
I can't travel to Berlin, so I can't visit the team. I also planned on traveling with my clients this year. I was already working from home, so this kind of just amplified that. If anything, I feel like the workload has doubled, not lessened. I also just want to put it out there that I'm incredibly blessed and very grateful to be able to have the jobs that I still do have.
I obviously miss going out to shows, that's a part of the job. I miss seeing my friends in music, I really miss seeing my friends in my personal life. I can't believe I'm about to say this, but I miss meetings. It's definitely been hard in that sense, where everything is now a Zoom or a phone call. But it's all motivating me, there is so much that we can get done still.
Do you feel hopeful about the music industry going forward? There was a period, which, gratefully, I think we kind of passed, where there were 30 Instagram lives happening at once. But how do you feel about the music industry in the next couple of years?
I don't know. I hear so many conflicting stories about whether or not touring and live shows will resume next year or in 2022. What does the virtual space look like now for artists? I'm hopeful about how technology will continue to adapt itself to benefit artists. I'm learning more and more that there needs to be more things in place that allow for artists to still make a living off of what they do, and also still be able to create without feeling the pressures of their financial situations and everything else. And I think when we get to a place where we have a sustainable infrastructure around the technology for something like that, as well as better opportunities for artists within this new landscape, I think we'll be in a really dope spot. And I feel like that's what the conversation is about, right now.
What advice do you have for someone that looks up to you and is emerging in this field?
Be a student. Learn. Study. I literally got to where I got today because I treated this like school. I did not study anything music related in college, I only had the passion for it and the passion to seek the knowledge for it. I realized, where I needed to grow and where I needed to improve, and I honed in on those things and have continued to do so.
Know your why: why do you want to do this? And what do you want out of all of this? When you know your why and your what, you will get to the how. Trust.
Also don’t be afraid to try a few different things. Connect with your peers and network with them instead of the people above you. All of your opportunities will come from your relationships with people who are at the same level as you and may also have some insight or expertise on things that you may not be well versed in. But they’re willing to share that wealth with you.
Curious what Brandon is listening to right now? Your wish is our command:
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Images Courtesy of Brandon Payano